History should be immutable. Then again, I should be young, rich and handsome. Unfortunately neither item is as it should be. History often changes, sometimes in a positive way (new discoveries, better analysis, etc.) sometimes negatively (revisionism), occasionally a mix of the two. What you know as engraved-in-stone certifiable historic fact often isn’t. Such is the case with the Wright Brothers.
When I was a youngster in school I was taught that Wilbur and Orville Wright made the world’s first successful powered flight on December 17, 1903 on a beach in North Carolina. Period. Full stop. End of story. Or was it?
There was, of course, a successful powered flight before the Wrights’ accomplishment at Kill Devil Hills (What a charming name! Look up it’s origin sometime. Cute story.) John Stringfellow, an Englishman, accomplished the first powered flight with a steam powered monoplane in 1848. But that was unmanned, so the Wrights were still the first, right?
Not so much. Another set of brothers in France, Felix and Louis du Temple de la Croix made a short hop of a powered, manned aluminum monoplane in 1874. But that was from a down-sloped ramp and was only a few feet off the ground, so the Wrights still made the first successful manned powered sustained flight, right? (Keep adding adverbs, we’ll get there.)
Depends who you talk to. Clement Ader, another Frenchman, may have flown a powered monoplane of his design two or three hundred yards (disputed), but definitely managed a flight of fifty yards. He never got more than twenty centimeters off the ground, though. So the Wrights managed the first successful, manned, powered, sustained flight of any real significance.
Maybe. Enter Gustave Whitehead. In 1899 Whitehead (originally Weisskopf) flew his steam powered monoplane a distance of about half a mile at a height of twenty to twenty-five feet in Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park, eventually crashing into a three story building. This was attested to in a sworn affadavit by Whitehead’s partner, Louis Darvarich (admittedly not a disinterested observer). I don’t know what kind of damage was done, but apparently enough. Whitehead was forbidden to try any further aerial shenanigans in Pittsburgh.
Far from discouraged, Whitehead tried again, in Fairfield, Connecticut in 1901. This time his aircraft, the Number 21, flew about a half mile at a height of up to fifty feet (compare to the Wrights two years later- 852 feet at a ten foot height). This time Whiehead’s feat was attested to by several witnesses, including a reporter for the Bridgeport Sunday Herald, who wrote an article for that Sunday’s edition. In addition, Whitehead successfully flew an improved version of his plane for two miles the following year, over Long Island Sound, and purportedly achieved an endurance of seven miles eventually.
So why have few people heard of Whitehead?
First, no photos exist of him actually in flight. The Sunday Herald article was illustrated by a drawing by the reporter, rather than a photo, which was the case in those days with any number of small papers whose expense accounts didn’t allow for a photographer. Photos of his historic flights taken by persons unknown had been displayed in the window of Lyon and Grumman’s Hardware store on Main Street in Bridgeport, Connecticut, but nobody seems to know what became of them. Another lost photo was the one displayed at the Aero Club of America in New York City, which was mentioned in an article in Scientific American. There were others as well, but all untraceable. Balanced against this were the statements of eyewitnesses, but they, alas, don’t carry the weight of even a solitary photo.
Second, Whitehead’s detractors were powerful people. Stanley Beach was the son of an editor of Scientific American, and became an editor himself. He was also at one time Gustave Whitehead’s partner. Early on Beach made several references in SA to Whitehead’s flights, even noting their priority to the Wright Brothers. When the partnership went sour, with Whitehead refusing to work on Beach’s aircraft, Beach changed his tune. Later on, after Whitehead’s death, Beach became an enthusiastic supporter of the Wright’s and denied, despite his previous statements to the contrary, that Whitehead had ever flown. Beach was a politician first and foremost, and like all politicians, was determined to be seen on the most popular side of any isssue. With Whitehead dead the Wrights’ star was on the rise.
Whitehead’s chief detractor was, of course, Orville Wright himself, and for good reason. The publicity generated by the Wrights being the first to fly allowed them to develop a corporation that bought their patents for one million dollars in stock (and that was in 1909 dollars, worth almost four million today) and a 10 percent royalty on every airplane sold. Obviously a fortune rode on their historic primacy. Orville even tried to make something significant of the fact that the Sunday Herald article wasn’t published until four days after the event. That was true, of course, since the Bridgeport Sunday Herald was a weekly paper. Whether Orville knew this, or even cared, I don’t know. Later, Orville’s heirs assured his place in history by contacting with the Smithsonian to purchase the Wright Flyer for one dollar, provided they never mentioned the possibility of anyone having flown before the Wrights. The deal that was brokered is dealt with and well documented in detail in the outstanding book History by Contract by O’Dwyer and Randolph.
Perhaps the best ‘proof’ of Whiteheads accomplishments was devised by Andy Kosch and his group Hangar 21, who accurately reproduced the Number 21, Whitehead’s plane. In 1986 Kosch made 20 successful flights for up to 100 meters.
No one wants to detract from the accomplishments of Wilbur and Orville Wright in any way. They had an astounding impact on early aviation, and their contributions will always be legendary whether they were the first to fly or not. It truly makes no difference to their legacy; but their legacy should not be at the expense of other aviation pioneers such as Gustave Whitehead. As Georg K. Weissenborn put it in the magazine Air Enthusiast:
“The evidence amassed in his favour strongly indicates that, beyond reasonable doubt, the first fully controlled, powered flight that was more than a test “hop”, witnessed by a member of the press, took place on 14 August 1901 near Bridgeport, Connecticut. For this assertion to be conclusively disproved, the Smithsonian must do much more than pronounce him a hoax while wilfully turning a blind eye to all the affidavits, letters, tape recorded interviews and newspaper clippings which attest to Weisskopf’s genius.”